Durham is the electoral district that Bev Oda has represented since 2004, and since Ms. Oda is retiring at the end of the month, it’s not too soon to look at the by-election possibilities here.
In 2011, Ms. Oda was elected with 31,737 votes — about 9000 more than her NDP and Liberal competition, combined. This is certainly a long way from her first election in 2004, when she took the riding (then known as Clarington-Scugog-Uxbridge) with 20,813 votes, a shade under 1300 more than her Liberal opponent.
Prior to Ms. Oda, the riding was represented by Liberal Alex Shepherd from 1993 to 2000, and before that by Progressive Conservative K. Ross Stevenson. The takeaway from this history is simple: this is not a riding that’s solidly bent towards any party affiliation, which means that it doesn’t meet the traditional definition of a “safe” riding.
Is there an opportunity here, for the Opposition? Certainly. There would be an incredible boost of confidence for the ranks of either the NDP or the Liberals if this Tory riding can be taken away from them.
How do the odds look? Slightly better for the NDP than for the Liberals. In 2011, their candidate, Tammy Schoep, came in second with 12,277 votes, slightly under 1900 more than the Liberal, Chris Humes. A Liberal partisan could dismiss this as part of the Jack Layton effect, but don’t forget the consequences of that election, to wit:
- more money for the NDP via the not-yet-gone-but-soon-will-be vote subsidy; and
- stronger caucus representation from Ontario, meaning more name firepower can be brought to bear in order to attract more supporters.
There will, of course, be a few progressives who would suggest that Durham would be the perfect opportunity to try a “unite-the-left” move by having either the NDP or the Liberals stand down on this one. Thing is, though, that’s going to take some serious negotiating and not a few egos being shelved “for the good of the left.” I’m not entirely certain that the two parties’ electoral associations are up to that — particularly in the view that candidates need to be selected.
And of course, the Tories won’t be sitting on their hands either. Their problem will be to field a candidate who can (a) command the same level of loyalty and commitment to hard work that Ms. Oda obviously had during her political career and (b) not be seen as a cookie-cutter generic runner, i.e. a sign that the party is taking this riding for granted. Said runner will also have the duty of defending the government’s record, in the face of guaranteed Opposition attacks on how the Tories do business in Parliament.
And, unless the Tories get lucky, their candidate will have the handicap of a high probability for backbencher status, making it easier for the Opposition candidates to label him/her a mere drone.
Bottom line: can the Tories hold Durham? The answer is yes, they can — but only if they don’t make the mistake of taking that riding for granted. You can bet the Opposition will do whatever’s necessary to take this seat. If the Tories are smart, they’ll not only match that effort, they should try to surpass it.